Joe Pass, Versatile Virtuoso of Jazz Guitar, Dies at 65


Joe Pass, legendary jazz guitarist considered gifted as a soloist and as accompanist to such stellar singers as Frank Sinatra, Sarah Vaughan and Ella Fitzgerald, died Monday. He was 65.

Pass, who had suffered from liver cancer for the past two years, died at USC-Norris Comprehensive Cancer Center.

“I think it’s a gift from God that I play the guitar. I don’t know how I got started,” Pass told The Times in 1992.


Although Pass disliked recording and insisted he was “not trying to make history, not trying to be the best guitar player in the world,” he recorded about 20 albums individually and can be heard with others on about 50 more.

“Pass is regarded by many musicians who have heard him as an incomparable modern jazz artist, a total virtuoso of the instrument,” Times jazz critic Leonard Feather said in his reference work, “Encyclopedia of Jazz in the Seventies.” “(He is) capable of swinging fiercely at fast tempos and of exceptional harmonic imagination on ballads.”

The guitarist earned international standing with his 1973 solo album, “Virtuoso,” which he considered one of his best. He later used the same title, adding successive numbers, for other solo albums.

Although Pass introduced new material over the years, he was particularly known for his ability to break down and rebuild old standards. He did just that with “Stella by Starlight” and “Cherokee” in the original “Virtuoso” album.

In 1974, Pass shared a Grammy for best jazz performance by a group with Oscar Peterson and Niels Pedersen for their album, “The Trio.”

Pass worked with other jazz greats, including Count Basie, Duke Ellington and Dizzy Gillespie. Among his recordings were “Portraits of Duke Ellington” in 1974, “Blues for Two” with Zoot Sims, “We’ll Be Together Again” in 1985 and “Summer Nights” in 1989.


In his 60s, Pass moved away from the guitar pick, noting: “Playing with your fingers is much better for solo guitar. You can get counterpoint, add bass lines. I decided to sacrifice playing fast with a pick to play music with my fingers.”

Born Jan. 13, 1929, in New Brunswick, N.J., and reared in Johnstown, Pa., the boy named Joseph Anthony Passalaqua began taking lessons on a $17 guitar when he was 9. As a teen-ager in the 1940s, Pass worked in jazz clubs in New York with such noted bands as those headed by Tony Pastor and Charlie Barnet.

Pass spent the next decade or so working in Chicago, New Orleans, Las Vegas and Casper, Wyo., primarily to support a drug habit.

He landed in Los Angeles in 1960 seeking studio work. In 1961, he dealt with his drug problem at the Synanon Foundation in Santa Monica, and by 1962, made his first record, “Sounds of Synanon.”

Exhibiting versatility and remarkable technique, Pass was welcome in almost any musical setting. He performed and recorded with another player or with small groups, backed singers and played in studio orchestras for television shows hosted by Pearl Bailey, Leslie Uggams and Donald O’Connor.

Although Pass practiced several hours a day in his youth, he joked that he gave it up as a professional.


“It’s not that I don’t have to (practice),” he said in 1992, “just that I’m lazy, basically, and I do a lot of playing when I’m playing solo. . . . I always intend to practice, and I start for a day or two, then I stop and read the newspaper or Time magazine, lay on the couch. . . .”

Pass, who had lived in the San Fernando Valley for many years, is survived by his wife, Ellen, a daughter, Nina, and a son, Joe Jr.

Funeral services will be held later this week at St. Mel’s Catholic Church in Woodland Hills.

The family has asked that any memorial donations be made to the USC-Norris Comprehensive Cancer Center or to a charity of the donor’s choice.